This is a draft statement put together by activists who are looking to set up a campaign around free speech and the right to organise on university and college campuses. Get in touch if you’re interested or to tell us what you think. Email Monty Shield, Queen Mary University of London left activist.
“Freedom is always freedom for those who dissent. The essence of political freedom depends on all the invigorating, beneficial, and cleansing effects of dissenters.” – Rosa Luxemburg
This campaign will fight to defend and extend free speech and the right to organise on campus, which are currently under threat from many sides – as an essential part of fighting oppression and building effective student and education workers’ movements. The problems we face:
1. The Prevent agenda is targeting Muslim students, seeking to turn lecturers, education workers and other students into informers, fostering suspicion and racism.
2. The government wants universities and colleges to ban speakers who would be quite legal elsewhere. Administrations ban speakers and meetings, even without such prompting, which they think might cause trouble or uproar.
3. Campus spaces are becoming increasingly commercialised. College bosses stop or at least discourage student postering, leafleting, and campaigning to prevent these activities disrupting their commercial space.
4. Many student unions are run as businesses rather than organisations to defend the interests of students, with sabbatical positions taken by people who want to boost their CV. This culture is politically opposed to student organising. Even good student unions have become infected by this culture, eg by going along with college rules or pressure, or avoiding controversy. Organising societies, meetings, organising stalls and public activity is generally getting harder.
5. When campus workers’ or student organisations have taken militant action in defence of people’s rights they have been targeted for bureaucratic and in some cases police harassment.
6. Successive governments have turned students into consumers, and lecturers into producers of market-oriented teaching and research. The current Green Paper on Higher Education will lock down these developments. The range of courses will be further narrowed. Teaching which is politically and socially critical, along with working-class, black, feminist, etc, education will be further discouraged.
7. Unfortunately the shutting down of debate and campus life is sometimes promoted by student activists who see themselves as left-wing – sometimes with good intentions, of promoting the rights of the oppressed, but almost always harmfully. Discouraging debate and controversy will not make campuses, let alone society, “safe”. In fact it will help shut down the very mechanisms the oppressed need to fight for their rights.
8. Lack of clarity about these issues on the left has allowed student right wingers, most of whom have little genuine interest in democratic rights, to demagogically exploit them for their own purposes.
The freedoms we champion have been most denied to the left, the oppressed and the exploited. To defend and extend them, however, we need to demand they are applied consistently, including to people we don’t like – whether that’s Tories, or Islamists, or people who we feel have betrayed the left. There are of course specific issues about how communities, including campus communities, need to defend ourselves (in the first instance physically) against fascist and far right groups, but in general the way to challenge oppression and bad ideas (and educate the people influenced by them) is argument, debate and political struggle, not bans.
Taking inspiration from the long history of student struggles for freedom of speech and organisation – like the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s in California, or the Latin American movements for “university reform” which succeeded in banning the police from campuses – we will fight for freedom of speech, debate, organisation and action on campuses in order to allow a flowering of student and workers’ organisation and struggle.